Improper handling of a trust account can lead to an ethics violation, and many states conduct random audits. While some trust accounting issues are the result of a deliberate misuse of funds, many others are mistakes that result from poor record keeping or not understanding the regulations surrounding a trust account’s use. Some of the most common issues are discrepancies between bank statements and the law firm’s internal records, commingling of funds, and misappropriation of funds. Record keeping issues. Poor record keeping can lead to trust fund violations when bank statements and internal records don’t match up. It is important to reconcile accounts monthly using a special type or reconciliation known as three-way reconciliation. This reconciliation process takes into account the trust ledger, the client ledgers, and the trust bank statement. Record keeping issues can also make the source of funds in the trust account unclear, which can prevent the three-way reconciliation. Commingling of funds. Commingling of client funds and attorney funds is another common issue. This can happen if an attorney has deposited funds in a trust account unrelated to a client matter. It also occurs if an attorney leaves funds in the trust account that now belong to the firm. When funds held in trust are earned by a law firm, they should be withdrawn from the trust. Misappropriation of funds. Misappropriation of funds can also occur accidentally, for example, if client funds are being used to pay the law firm’s bank account charges. For example, if a firm accepts credit card payments and doesn’t have a method for accounting for credit card fees, the firm is now charging operating costs to the trust account, which is a misappropriation of funds. The trust account should also not be used to cover a firm’s other operating costs. This can happen if litigation disbursements filing fees or search fees are being advanced for the client from the operating account. Additional common issues that are found during an audit include:
- Lack of quarterly reconciliations or inaccurate reconciliations
- Using trust accounts for personal transactions
- Insufficient memo descriptions on checks
- Outstanding checks for over six months
- Interest not remitted to the state created bar foundation
- Not maintaining financial data for at least 7years
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